Question from Dominic:
I was thinking of the Columbine massacre lately as an example…why should Dylan and Eric have been good instead of bad? Even in our daily lives, why should we choose to be good?
Answer by SmartLX:
Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are hardly shining examples of why there’s no good reason to be good, what with being not only dead but widely despised and ridiculed because of their terrible act. They may have avoided punishment by killing themselves when they were done, but they destroyed any possibility of improving their lives and being happy ever again. If they had simply not done that, they might well be alive, in their thirties and quite content right now despite all they were going through in their teens. Sadly they couldn’t see that far forward at the time.
A better question than why we should choose to be good is why we do choose to be good, whether or not we believe in gods. It really happens all the time out in the world, so rather than imply despite the evidence that there’s no good reason, we can accept that people are finding reasons which have nothing to do with gods, and think about what they are.
Consequences are the main thing to consider, and not just for oneself. Actions which are selfish and/or pointlessly destructive (a working definition of “bad”) can bring obvious and severe consequences like jail, ostracism or retribution, which people generally want to avoid, but that’s just for the person doing them. As with Columbine, “bad” actions can also profoundly affect the lives of others in negative ways, and people usually want to avoid this too. Not only is it part of the “social contract” we all live with, but our innate empathy ties our mental wellbeing to the plights of others. Put simply, if you’re going to feel bad for someone you’re much less likely to do bad things TO that person.
All this is true for believers in a judgemental god as well. The only difference is that there is one more posthumous consequence to take into account when deciding how to act. There’s no denying that this can be useful for reinforcing good behaviour, but it can backfire in less clear-cut situations because the supposed commands of a god may not line up with what’s altruistic and beneficial to the most people (“good”). Too many people working against the rights of women, ethnic minorities and LGBT groups throughout the world are entirely convinced that they’re doing God’s work.
Question from Dominic: